In the late 1970s, many international observers scoffed at Libya’s plans to draw water from wells deep in the Sahara desert for transportation to the country’s coastal cities. Three decades and 3500km of pipelines later, the Great Man-Made River Project (GMRP) does not seem quite so laughable: the ‘river’ delivers 2.1bn cubic meters of water a year and represents a vital component of the country’s drinking and agricultural water supply. Although designed and built by foreign firms, it is now managed by Libyan scientists.

Libya – the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, to give it its full name – hopes that the GMRP’s successful outcome will make the world take its latest mega-project more seriously. Never one to shy away from ambitious plans, Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi has given his backing to a project to study the possibility of creating a series of inland salt-water lakes around the Gulf of Sirte.

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According to hydro-geologist Ahmidi Al-Kaseh, executive director of the Sirte Depressions Connection Project (SDCP), topographical studies of north Africa indicate that parts of the desert in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria have a large number of inland, below-sea level depressions (otherwise known as salt lakes), the bulk of which are dry year-round.

The Qattara Depression in Egypt covers about 22,000 sq km, while in Libya these depressions (sebkhas in Arabic) cover approximately 10,000 sq km of land – roughly the size of Lebanon or Cyprus.

Early signs are that the depressions in Libya’s central zone, surrounding the city of Sirte, offer the best regional conditions for connection to the Mediterranean Sea via tunnels or canals, to create artificial salt lakes.

The SDCP is engaged in a feasibility study to assess how, and to what effect, these depressions can be flooded. Mr Al-Kaseh and his fellow scientists believe that the creation of artificial lakes will offer Libya a multitude of social, environmental and economic benefits. “The Sirte area is a vast area with very little vegetation – it is desert joined directly to the sea, and separates Libya in two. We want to resolve this,” he says.

The project is being managed by Libya’s Agricultural Research Centre (ARC). A primary test site for the SDCP and its fish farming component is being run at Quwaim El-Melh, near Brega, by soil chemist Dr Ahmed Abuzakhar.

Multiple spin-offs

ARC chairman Mohammed Farkash believes that the SDCP, if given the green light, will not only benefit Libya but the international community as a whole. The SDCP’s managers hope to increase scientific understanding of issues relating to connecting depressions to the Mediterranean. Such knowledge, and the results of Libya’s pilot projects, will help other countries interested in undertaking similar projects – beyond north Africa, similar depressions are found in China, Djibouti and the US.

To start, however, international technical assistance will be vital. Mr Farkash says: “We need international co-operation. We have some resources and know-how, others have other resources and know-how. We can co-operate for joint results.”

The SDCP’s managers stress, nevertheless, that capacity building within Libya’s scientific community is a key aim and that the project represents an opportunity to provide training and experience for Libyan engineers and scientists.

Domestic aims are ultimately more important than lofty international goals and Mr Al-Kaseh describes the SDCP as a “multi-objective project”. For his part, Mr Farkash believes that the project will help tackle the country’s two biggest challenges: the need for economic diversification in the face of oil depletion, and water scarcity.

“Libyan scientists and engineers have set a trend of strategic thinking,” he says. “We are coming up with new ideas for the benefit of our country and our environment, to face our challenges.” He argues that such “strategic thinking” began with Mr Qadhafi’s 1969 revolution, “which led to a decision to conquer the desert” via projects to irrigate the Sahara and expand agriculture in marginal areas.

The GMRP represented the second phase and the next phase will be ushered in by the SDCP.

Climate change

On the environmental front, the lakes will be a physical barrier between the southern Sahara desert and coastal populations. Studies indicate that lakes will change the micro-climate: the evaporation from the flooded depressions will produce rain clouds and increase humidity, thus improving vegetation cover in the area, and may also decrease air temperatures. They should also reduce the seepage of underground fresh water into the depressions, thus preserving these vital water supplies, and shield coastal inhabitants from the harsh, sand-carrying Saharan Gibbli winds.

The modification of the local climate thus promises to help combat desertification, an ongoing problem across north Africa (about 96% of Libya is covered by desert), and reduce the risk of drought. With regard to benefits for the oil industry, which is particularly concentrated near the El-Ghanayn Depression, Mr Al-Kaseh says that the lakes will provide water for re-injection into oil wells – groundwater is used for this at present.

Another goal is to bridge the gap between Libya’s north-east and north-west, in terms of demographic distribution and geopolitical importance, by strengthening the local economy and residential population in the vicinity of the artificial lakes.

At present, the bulk of the country’s population is located in Libya’s two official capital cities: Tripoli in the west, and Benghazi in the east. Small-scale agricultural projects may draw new communities to the lakes.

Dr Abuzakhar notes: “We’re not expecting Libya to become a big agricultural producer – everyone knows we have a shortage of water. But we can have site-specific developments, to make use of the resources and advantages that we do have.”

In this way, the project is an attempt to bolster long-term efforts to diversify the Libyan economy away from oil dependency. Such efforts have been boosted by Libya’s post-2001 reintegration into the international community. After decades of international isolation, UN sanctions have been lifted and US sanctions significantly eased in response to the payment of compensation to victims of alleged Libyan terrorist attacks. Weapons of mass destruction have been abandoned and Mr Qadhafi has thrown his weight behind the ‘war on terror’. And economic liberalisation is beginning (very gradually) – the Great Libyan Socialist Jamahiriya has even applied for World Trade Organization membership.

Investment options

On the economic front, the SDCP offers possibilities for hydro-electric power production in the deepest depressions. Fish farming is another of the project’s promising economic spin-offs – the intention is to use natural gas reserves and solar energy to improve water quality in the lakes to make them suitable for biosaline agriculture.

Five sebkhas have been earmarked for aquaculture research and pilot fish farming projects. The main research site is at El-Temimi, 75km west of Derna. Other sites are El-Bey and Sultan, near Sirte; Agouria, near Benghazi; and Quwaim El-Melh.

According to Dr Abdullah Aeargh, who is directing the projects: “These sebkhas share several environmental factors. For example, most of them have an accumulation of water that is stagnant all year round. They are close to the sea coast, and some of them are open to the sea while others have some inland channels.

“We’re hoping to reach an agreement about the best way to develop and invest in these lakes. The modification of these lakes to make them suitable habitats for sea animal culture requires a lot of effort.”

Some pilot fish farming projects will soon be set up, however, while the research is ongoing. Although the fish farms will initially be state-owned, there is a possibility that the existing and planned lakes will eventually be opened up to FDI.

Other potential spin-offs from the SDCP that could offer FDI opportunities are tourism and mining. Mr Al-Kaseh notes that flooding the depressions “will create an additional 500km of pristine shoreline” to add to Libya’s current attractions of stunning Roman and Greek remains, such as Leptis Magna and Cyrene, and desert cities such as Ghadames. As Libya’s relations with the West continue to normalise, the SDCP’s managers hope that these beaches will pull in the crowds looking for a bit of winter sun.

As for exploitation of mineral resources, by their very nature the sebkhas are a source of myriad varieties of salts. Many of the depressions have salt levels three to four times that of the Mediterranean. When they are filled with sea water, evaporation will result in even higher levels of salt, which could be exploited for commercial purposes.

The quality of sand in the surrounding regions is also very high, offering possibilities for silica mining, says Mr Al-Kaseh.

Preliminary research

Although there is great optimism among Libyan scientists regarding the potential benefits of the SDCP, they are determined to conduct a thorough and detailed feasibility study as the first phase. Some 15 sub-committees, consisting of Libyan specialists working in fields such as geology, aquaculture, climate and tourism have been established and eight have completed their preliminary findings.

The sub-committees are aiming to meet for a national workshop before the end of the year. Once the national findings have been gathered, the SDCP will invite international specialists working in fields related to the project to attend a workshop in Libya.

The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) may participate in the project: a 2004 FAO report following a visit to Libya declared that it would assess its mandate for such a project and “propose a programme of technical assistance in the domains of its expertise”.

Following the international workshop, the detailed feasibility study will be handed to decision makers to judge whether or not to go ahead with the project.

So long as the project appears feasible, there is confidence that it will be approved, given Mr Qadhafi’s support for its aims. The next step would be to outline terms of reference and requests for proposals (RFPs) for project design. The design would be carried out by a consultancy firm selected through international bidding.

International scientists who want to get involved in this ambitious and ground-breaking project will have ample opportunity in the near term. However, foreign investors assessing their options in Libya are advised not to hold their breath.

The SDCP is clearly being conducted on a long-term timescale. It is estimated that phase one, namely research and feasibility studies, will take three to five years. The design phase may begin towards the end of phase one, but that still leaves the implementation phase up to a decade away.

Even once implementation begins, difficult logistics mean that it will take many years to complete and will potentially cost tens of billions of dollars. The first phase of the GMRP, for example, took 12 years. Mr Al-Kaseh reckons it could take up to 20 years for the massive El-Ghanayn lake to be filled after a tunnel or canal is built. On top of this, Libya’s massive bureaucracy and opaque decision-making processes are world famous (or rather, infamous), and the ARC and SDCP do not appear to be exceptions to the rule.

The completion of phase one of the GMRP provided the lesson that Libya’s mega-projects cannot be written off as pipe dreams. Yet by selling itself so high, and potentially offering such a wide range of environmental, social and economic benefits, the SDCP has further to fall if the reality does not live up to the vision.

Rocky road

The decade or two needed for the projects to be implemented could give the authorities enough time to clean up their act, but much remains to be done if Libya is to become an FDI hotspot. Outside of the oil industry, foreign firms have found it tough going. The plans to develop tourist sites on the artificial lakes appear particularly far fetched, given that the country seems to make it as difficult as possible for tourists to get visas and travel to Libya’s existing, magnificent sites.

The SDCP is unlikely to be the most effective nor the quickest means of decreasing Libya’s economic dependence on oil. But the government figures it is nonetheless worth a try.